February 11, 2018
Bible Reading Mark 9:1b-9
Some of you who are standing here will not taste death before they see it the kingdom of God arrive in full force.”
Six days later, three of them did see it. Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain. His appearance transfigured from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus.
Peter interrupted, “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking, frightened and stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.
Just then a cloud enveloped them, and from deep in the cloud, a voice: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” The next minute the disciples were looking around, but they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy until after the Son of Man rises from the dead.
(MSG, NIV blended and abridged)
Message “Rise Up! God is Working!” Mark 9:2-9, 14-29
Hold on to that reading for a minute. While that was happening, let’s place ourselves with the rest of the disciples who were waiting at the base of the mountain. Knowing the competitive nature of these disciples (See, e.g., Luke 9:46, Luke 22:24ff), it wouldn’t be surprising if, in this moment in the valley, they might be well be stewing about why and how they failed to make the cut to go up in the mountain with Jesus. And depending upon their personalities, it may have led to a more angry, jealous, ambitious competitive spirit; OR, an introspective self-examination on
how to improve (so they can make the cut next time); OR a self-defeated depress-sion; feeling powerless to make a sufficient difference in their own lives, unable to favorably compare themselves to, or break into what some people now call “Jesus’ inner circle”. While consumed with these self-directed thoughts.
Now add to the story, and this is in our text; a father approached them with his grown son who was possessed with severe symptoms. He asked the disciples to drive out the spirit, but they couldn't. It wasn’t that they hadn’t had that ability. They had healed the possessed on an earlier mission (Mark 6:13). It makes us wonder if that power was granted only for that particular Jesus-assigned mission trip, or if they had drifted away from what had been granted; Did they get full of themselves and therefore empty of God’s power? Or was this son more entrenched in his bondage than the disciples had previously encountered? But more to today’s point, what thoughts and feelings must be flooding their hearts and minds; unable to make enough of a difference in their own lives to break into the top three; seemingly powerless to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those around them – people who needed them to make a difference for them.
Now add to the story, a crowd has gathered around them to watch them fail to heal the son. Not only can they not break into the top three, not only did they fail to help this family in need, it turned into a public event. I imagine this group of followers felt their faith shaken at this moment.
Now add to the story, among the crowd were some religious leaders. Our text says that they were arguing with the disciples. They were a determined, embittered, hateful group of people who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God who came from heaven to deliver his people. Jesus’ miracles were a given, even among his enemies. But the repeating of these stories was less about the miracles themselves as they were making a statement about the miracle worker. So, these leaders saw in this failed miracle a great opportunity to set the disciples and the crowd straight about, in their opinion, who Jesus was not.
By now I imagine these disciples were reeling, squirming under the expert scrutiny and harassment of these powerful leaders. squirming? scrutinized? humbled, frightened, defensive arguing It is humbling and frightening. It is difficult to thrive in an argument against the assault of unbelieving and unkind people, especially when you already have all these thoughts and doubts running through your mind. I can imagine they were wavering under the pressure. They may well have felt like the main character in The Life of Pi, who finds himself afloat on a raft on the high seas in the dark of night, with no rudder to steer by, and no stars for setting his course, even if he had a course to set.
And in this state of terrifying uncertainty, you might say, just in the nick of time; Jesus and the three returns from the mountain. The crowd, not yet convinced by the religious leaders, unfazed the failure of Jesus’ followers; run to Jesus in overwhelming wonder to greet him. He asks what the argument is about. And the father answers about the failure of the disciples to drive out the spirit in his son, and the resulting argument. Jesus then asked how long he would have to stay and put up with this unbelieving generation. Exactly to whom in the crowd Jesus was addressing is not clear. Was it the world and everyone in general, the religious leaders, or his own disciples?
Jesus requests the grown boy be brought to him, and the boy acts out. Jesus questions the father about his condition; and the father goes into detail about his long-term dangerously destructive behaviors, then concluded by saying.
But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene…
[I’m not sure how they got separated from the crowd that is now returning, or if Mark just means even more crowds were coming so he wanted to take care of this man’s son before they arrived]
… he rebuked the impure spirit... The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. (NIV)
Jesus quotes the father, “If I can?” Was this as critically toned a question as the earlier, “How long do I have to stay and put up with this unbelieving generation?” With that question, Jesus points out to us the damage of doubts.
When doubt overtakes us,
1) We admit defeat before we even attempt a task.
2) Doubts lead to frustration, anger, and arguing.
3) Doubts inhibit, if don't prohibit vision fulfillment
4) Doubts prohibit us from seeing a miracle being birthed in our life
5) Doubts weaken our defenses and our resolve
6) Doubts prohibit peace and inspires anxious worry in troubling times
But when Jesus quotes the father’s “if I can” he seems not to be judgmentally condemning him, if that was the intent he would have added, “I’m sorry you don’t have enough faith for a miracle”, or “Go, muster up more faith, then come back and we’ll talk about it some more.”
Everything is possible with even a little belief.
But Jesus understands our human limitations. He is realistic about our doubts. He does not necessarily expect us to have a perfect faith. He starts where we are and can use the most minuscule amounts of hope to do something in our lives. He simply cast the demon out, because even with a little belief, God will use that as an excuse to act on our behalf and build our trust. Matthew records Jesus telling his disciples at the end of this same story, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (See Matthew 17:20) You don't have to have faith like a mountain to move a mustard seed, but if you have any faith at all, tiny mustard seed sized faith; it is enough to get God's attention, his love, his care, his support, and if it his will in the big picture, it will move the hand of God to move mountains for us. We may not always understand the possibilities. We may not always see what is best for us in the bigger picture that includes but goes beyond us – but we can trust that God is eager to move on our behalf. He casts out what truly binds us, because, with even a little belief, God will act as God chooses to act for the people he has called to be his own. So, I’m convinced that Jesus is quoting this father to give him an opportunity to diminish his doubts and build on the faith he does have.
Desperation may birth seeds of potential belief
This father may have not been at a point where he still felt hope. When he heard about and sought out Jesus, it may have been more out of desperation than out of faith. But it didn’t matter – the fact that he acted on his desperation brings out of him a hope that he may well have felt died long ago. We know some seed of faith was there, because he did act by bringing his son to Jesus. And when Jesus quotes his “if you can” as a teaching moment, the father jumps eagerly at his learning opportunity – “I do believe and help me to build my faith to overcome the doubts I do have.” Growing seeds of faith and diminishing seeds of doubt is something we all need help with from time to time.
Be honest about our doubts
This man teaches us to be honest about our doubts. We struggle because we believe our faith is not perfect, or as good as we imagine someone else's is, or as good as we think it should be, so we are tempted to pretend that our faith is stronger than it is. But we cannot grow our faith by denying its weaknesses. Instead we should take comfort. This father would not have won any awards for outstanding faith, and the disciples
had to learn over and over again that they weren't as strong in their faith as they wished they were.
Desire to have more faith
Also included in the man’s confession of doubts is a desire for more faith... to be clear -- the desire is for our growth in our faith, and our willingness to grow is not conditioned on God first proving Himself to us on our terms. The father did not say to Jesus, heal my son and then I will put my faith in you – he simply asked for help to have faith. It is when we confess our need for God to help us with our doubts that he can begin to work in us only what God can do. Be honest with God about our doubts, desire to have more faith, and unlearn doubting habits.
Unlearn doubting habits
This man had been dealing with his need for years. We can’t say for sure how it had impacted him, but I know that it is generally true that repeated disappointments over and over can train us to think in skeptical, even cynical ways. If we want to grow in faith, we may have to disrupt our normal negative thinking patterns.
As Paul says in Romans 12:2, do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
The most important lesson to diminishing doubt and developing faith doesn’t come from this father, but from Jesus interaction from the disciples.
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
[In Matthew, Jesus talked about the mustard seed of faith, which the disciples did not yet have, but here in Mark]
He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer [and fasting].”
Notice that Jesus did not say: “I’m the only one who can handle this kind of situation. It is beyond you.” He did not say, “If only you had said the right words” (as if it required a magical formula and they got it wrong). Nor did he say, “Only professionally trained people can handle things like this.” What he said was, “God can work miracles through people who stay in contact with God.”
Keeping in contact with God
Faith grows through a committed prayer life. Read His Word. Believe what it says. Act upon it, for as James says, faith without action is a dead faith. (See James 2:18-20) If we can put one step in front of other, that will get us one step further in growth and progress to our destination – to discover God accomplishing his will through us – Focus on the path and not on the problem, focus on Jesus and not the risk... and recognize that even when people approach us and ask for a miracle, it is not us who live the miraculous life, but we rise up because God is already working all around us. In response to even a little faith, he frees, he liberates, he heals; and then Luke adds, Jesus gave him back to his father; and they were all amazed at the greatness of God. (Luke 9:42b-43)
That brings us back our first reading where Jesus and his inner circle were up in the mountain, where they saw physical and spiritual worlds intersect, where they saw Christ in all his full divine glory, as well as Moses and Elijah. Peter is so caught up in the moment that he isn’t thinking clearly, and he asks to set up memorials, or booths. That is, a permanent place like the tent of meeting in the Old Testament, where people communicate with God, or as the traditional booth festival that reminds us that God provides.
But the mountain top is not meant to analyze, regulate, codify, institutionalize, and limit God into fixed ways and fixed places of operating. The minute we do that, it all vanishes from our grasp. Later on, when Peter refers back to this memorable event; he doesn’t say we should go up a mountain, build a booth and recreate the event so that maybe we can find that door between the physical and spiritual worlds again. Instead, he uses the memory to remind everyone Christ is already alive and well and with us and working his mission in us and his world in constantly fresh and exciting ways.
For the mountain is not to get us out of the valley where forces and beliefs collide, where spiritual battles persist. Where tensions, disappointments, conflict and frustration and voluntary or forced vulnerability are often a part of life. The mountain reminds us that we have a real and powerful and glorious God who is always descending into the valley to work for us – and, perhaps, like the disciples who were already there, we need to learn rely on our own discipleship ability less, and to rely on God more, as we think self-thoughts less and God-thoughts more, as we continually listen to him --- as we, in faith, prepare as those three disciples prepared -- for the terrors of devoted, sacrificial service that lay ahead. We may not always feel we are powerful enough for the task before us -- to make a meaningful difference in the needs of our own life, our homes, our church, or our community.
But as Stuart Briscoe writes, the greatest characteristic [even of a powerful leader] is the ability to follow. All it takes for you to become everything that God intends for you is a willingness to follow. In fact, it seems the more powerless the leader, the more glory God receives; and the mountain reminds us that “if we have called upon the Lord to deal with us in grace and mercy, we can take courage, because the power of God’s grace is boundless. Believe it, rejoice in it, and take on the mission God has laid before you….
Let’s pray Dear Lord, we realize we must listen to you, and follow where you lead. You call us to shine with your glory, to go from the mountain into the valley, to bring rejoicing where there is suffering, to bring fellowship where there is persecution, to bring a vision of eternal life to the realities of mortality, to move from Transfiguration to Lent. You are preparing us for your work in your world -- to rescue those who are perishing, and to care for our neighbor in the name of Jesus Christ.
Closing Hymn # 591 (vv 1,3,4) Rescue the Perishing
Knowing that God’s light has risen upon you. So through you, let his light shine into a dark world by rising up to live kingdom values and daring to serve Jesus in new and adventurous ways. Amen.